If, as is sometimes suggested, the cost of a Catholic upbringing is a life-long guilty conscience, how much worse for the recusant landed family whose estate owes its existence to Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries? And the ironies don’t stop there at Cheeseburn Grange, near Stamfordham, eleven miles north-west of Newcastle upon Tyne, a property passed only by marriage and inheritance since the Reformation.


see: Andrew Curtis @ geograph

Cheeseburn Grange is just one of several houses in the county which have been associated successively with the same two extensive Northumbrian families, the Widdringtons and Riddells, whose religious and Royalist affiliations, combined with their proxmity to Scotland, lead almost inevitably to their participation in the 1715 Jacobite uprising. Strange then that Cheeseburn’s most high-profile owner to date should have been a Puritan Parliamentarian who actively sought to undermine the constitutional position of the Scots.


You have established your throne upon two columns of diamond, Piety and Justice; the one gives you to God, the other gives Men to you, and all your subjects are most happy in both.”


see: NPG

Words taken from the address of the Recorder of York, Thomas Widdrington, greeting the arrival of King Charles I in the city on 30 March, 1639, effusive loyalty which plainly went down well as Widdrington was knighted the following day. Eighteen years later, however, Sir Thomas (left), by now the Speaker of the House of Commons, was overseeing Oliver Cromwell’s investiture as Lord Protector (Cromwell having resisted Widdrington’s recommendation that he take the crown as king).

Sir Thomas’s father, Lewis Widdrington, was the illegitimate offspring of a family prominent in Northumbria since the C12; by the end of the C16 he was the owner (via marriage) of Cheeseburn, formerly a grange of Hexham Priory. Thomas duly inherited in 1630, married Frances Fairfax three years later and in April 1640 as the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed he entered parliament and the cockpit of constitutional calamity.

widdiA cautious lawyer by reputation, Puritan Widdrington, whilst ready and willing to confront the likes of backsliding bishops such as Matthew Wren (right), would have no part in the prosecution of their tacit inspiration, the king himself. But there could be no real hiding place from the harsh realities of civil conflict when your brother-in-law (Thomas Lord Fairfax) was commander-in-chief of the New Model Army and your sister (Hannah) was married to John Rushworth, personal secretary to Oliver Cromwell.

Widdrington’s metier was backroom negotiation and he would be right there at the anvil as a new constitutional settlement was hammered out. Sir Thomas was not without his own agenda, however. As the leader of the ‘Northern Gentlemen’ faction of MPs (historically wary of their neighbours north of the border), Widdrington’s perceived attempts to relegate the role of Scotland created ‘apprehension which contributed greatly to the outbreak of the Second Civil War’.¹

But Thomas’s generally moderating stance throughout these turbulent times saw him survive relatively unscathed in the spasm of vengeance which accompanied the restoration of the monarchy. Able to remain an MP, Widdrington lost most of his positions of office but not his property. His only son having predeceased him, at Sir Thomas’s death in 1664 Cheeseburn Grange passed briefly to his brother, Henry, and thirty years on was in the possession of Henry’s son, Ralph and his wife, Mary.



see: Santhosh Nair

We can be precise about this thanks to a feature in the walled garden at Cheeseburn, a splendid survival from a major remodelling of the house which would take place some 120 years later: ‘Entry to [the] summerhouse re-uses a door surround of 1694. In the pediment a large crest and shield of the Widdrington family inscribed RW MW 1694. Flanking the pediment two large busts of spotted bulls, the crest of the Widdringtons.’ [Listing]


see: Country Life

Ralph’s namesake grandson was to be the last Widdrington of Cheeseburn Grange, however. This Ralph’s sister, Mary, had married Thomas Riddell of Swinburne Castle (right), another Northumbrian seat which had belonged to the Widdringtons from the C13 until passing by marriage in 1678. (Swinburne has remained in this line; a C16 wing and C18 orangery were incorporated into a new house in the 1990s.)

Both Ralph Widdrington and Thomas Riddell were proactive Jacobites and spent several years in exile after their routing in 1715 but ultimately survived with their properties intact. Ralph died childless in 1752, Cheeseburn passing to his nephew, Thomas’s second son – Ralph.


see: Country Life

It’s clear that being Catholic gentry in the least densely populated county in England did somewhat limit the gene pool. Ralph Riddell’s elder brother, Thomas, married Elizabeth Widdrington, heiress of Felton Park (left). In turn, two of their sons would marry the Salvin sisters of that Catholic Co. Durham dynasty (seated at Croxdale Hall since the C15). The younger son, Edward, having inherited Felton Park through his mother, died just seven months after his wedding.

With Felton now passing to her brother-in-law (Ralph Riddell), Edward’s widow remarried … her late husband’s cousin, Ralph Riddell of Cheeseburn Grange.

Both Ralphs would significantly remodel their houses; at Cheeseburn, Ralph Riddell (1771-1831) turned to the coming man of architecture in the area, John Dobson. This young practicioner was not long back in his native North East after a spell furthering his education in London. Dobson had resisted flattering encouragement to set up in the capital sensing greater opportunities back home. And he was not wrong, being fully employed throughout a career which would leave a dominant stamp on both town and country locally. Ralph Riddell was amongst his earliest significant patrons, Dobson being engaged to refashion the house and park at Cheeseburn Grange from 1813.²


see: Newcastle Uni Music

While his country houses are most characteristically crisply classical in style, Dobson also developed a line in picturesque Gothic of which Cheeseburn is an agreeably modest example. Having removed the old main door surround to the garden, the entrance was now to the south and emphasised by a castellated porch and tower while ‘a high parapet pierced with Gothic openings [hid] the old roof’.³


see: A.J. Wigham / Flickr

Proposed turrets at each corner of the house never materialised but a new chapel attached to the west side of the house would be served by a private chaplain in continuance of the tradition of a Catholic mission at Cheeseburn.


see: Historic England

The altar (left) was later redesigned by ‘one of the most remarkable characters of the Victorian age’, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, also responsible for a substantial Gothic wing added to house c.1860 (r). While the inventor of the Hansom cab and founder of The Builder (now Building) magazine also has a substantial built legacy – Birmingham Town Hall, Arundel Cathedral, etc – this no longer includes his extension at Cheeseburn which was demolished in the 1970s.


see: Gary Scott / Flickr

‘Dobson’s proposals [at Cheeseburn] are important for also including major alterations to the surrounding parkland. He suggested a whole new scheme of planting to shelter the house, and replanned the driveway to enable the visitor on approach to fully appreciate the siting of the house in its landscape.’³ And very recently the visitor has been invited to appreciate the siting of other creations within this landscape…

… the past few years having seen the emergence of Cheeseburn Sculpture.

Sculpture at Cheeseburn, Northumberland

see: Sally-Ann Norman

On the walls are old masters whose darkness conceals their artistic insignificance‘ – Somerset Maughm’s comic put-down of the art likely adorning the minor country seat. Doubtless Cheeseburn Grange has had its share of such but is now determinedly raising its game. Part of a mini-trend which has seen some traditional private estates develop their grounds as occasional alfresco art galleries – at the opposite end of the country, Delamore in Devon (‘in the same family since 1688’) is a not-dissimilar model – Cheeseburn has, since 2014, become ‘a showcase for sculpture, design and art, where the public can encounter new and established work in the setting of our historic house and gardens’.


see: The Journal

Behind this serious commitment to new art is Joanna Riddell (left), wife of the present squire of the 2,000-acre Cheeseburn Grange estate. Since taking over from Simon Riddell’s bachelor uncle in 1992 gradual rejuvenation of the house and gardens (“project after project .. serious hard graft”) has finally made way for novel creativity. The recent conversion of outbuildings has expanded the curatorial options for Riddell (and arts consultant Matthew Jarratt); Cheeseburn’s latest show takes place this coming weekend.

Potentially overlooked these days amidst this sudden influx of diverting objets d’art, spare a thought for an ancient garden feature which was hitherto without rival as the object of curiosity and wonder hereabouts:

Pedestal sundial. C17. Sandstone. Complex multi-faceted top recording the time not only in Stamfordham but also in Cracow and Mexico.’


see: TammyTourGuide

But of course, Cracow and Mexico, where else? The exotic, mystifying dimensions of this grade II listed artifact gave inspiration to recent writer-in-residence, Linda France:

The old sundial has given up its ghost, a puzzle now of broken gnomons and random numbers, nearly worn away by centuries of March winds and April showers.’

The Dictionary of National Biography perhaps provides some clues: ‘James Riddell (d.1674) was the son of an English merchant descended from a landowning family who traded in Cracow, Poland, and later moved to Edinburgh.’


see source

Intruigingly, an earlier edition also notes that this James ‘made the acquaintance of Oliver Cromwell, who is said to have stayed some time in his house in Leith’.

Maybe one day all will be explained. But for now, with the bar having been significantly raised in the fascination stakes around here, it’s perhaps just as well that the old sundial should remain simply another of the riddles of Cheeseburn Grange…

[Cheeseburn][GII* listing][More views]

¹ Scott, D. The ‘Northern Gentlemen’.. and Anglo-Scottish relations in the Long Parliament, The Historical Journal, 1999.
² Wilkes, L. John Dobson: Architect and landscape gardener, 1980.
³ Faulkner, T., Greg, A. John Dobson Architect of the North East, 2001.

Sotterley Hall, Suffolk


see: Barry Cross / Flickr

In 1994 a wealthy London businessman named Jon Hunt acquired a very big house in the country. Rescued from an unfortunate recent past, majestic Heveningham Hall (r) is the very model of a stately stately, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with impeccable interiors by James Wyatt. Further to the restoration of this house as a private family home, an unexecuted parkland scheme by Capability Brown has since been realised and two more fine houses and thousands of acres beyond gradually acquired to create a cultivated wilderness.

Such an extravagant entree into the landowning echelon might easily attract the pejorative epithet ‘new money’ but then, of course, plenty of ‘old money’ was new itself once upon a time. Heveningham (pro. Henningham) Hall was begun in 1778 for Sir Gerard Vanneck, member of a wildly successful family of London merchants of Dutch origin (formerly ‘Van Neck’), the estate having been purchased by his elder brother, Sir Joshua (d. 1777), twenty-six years earlier. And, while ‘only a handful of the richest men in mid-C18 London were seeking permanent entry into the ranks of the landed elite’, this corner of East Suffolk had already attracted another.¹


see: Moviemakersguide

Some thirteen miles north-east of Heveningham stands Sotterley Hall (r), built c.1745 by one Miles Barne and today the home of his direct descendant, Miles Barne. Although the prodigiousness of the Vanneck house (and their acquisition of a baronetcy in 1751) suggests some disparity of wealth and ambition, for over half a century these City arrivistes would find common cause in a crumbling coastal settlement a few miles to the east.

From its Middle Ages zenith as a significant port town of 3,000 people and eight churches, rampant coastal erosion had by this time reduced Dunwich to a small village with just one. Crucially, however, one number had never changed: Dunwich still returned two members of Parliament. The archetypal rotten borough, ‘political affairs [here] were virtually reduced to a series of financial transactions’, the tiny number of voting freemen always alive to value of their situation.

With the encouragement of this electorate (numbering about fifteen at the time), three years after his arrival in the area Miles Barne paid unpopular local property owner Sir George Downing £1,200 for one of the two seats.² Being Dutch-born, a seat in Parliament was an impossible aspiration for Sir Joshua Vanneck at nearby Heveningham but he formed an alliance with Barne securing a seat each for their sons thenceforth. For the Barne boys, however, this was to prove rather more a burden than a privilege.

Miles Barne was a scion of another of those mercantile families who had prospered, inter-married and rotated the mayoralty of the City of London during the previous two centuries. In 1744, the year after his father (also Miles, a director of the East India Company until he ‘became insane‘) died, Barne, 25, signalled a new direction with his purchase of the 930-acre – today 3,500a – Sotterley estate.

playtThis place had been owned since 1475 by the Playters family whose fortunes had suffered at the time of the Civil War. Royalist Sir Lionel Playters endured ‘many acts of plunder and persecution’, the latter including a charge of ‘eating custard in a scandalous manner’ (plainly no trifling matter under the Commonwealth).³ A fine collection of Playters memorials are to be found in Sotterley parish church (left).


see: Doug Sharp / Panoramio

Miles Barne lost no time pulling down the Playters’ old house and replacing it with the brick mansion which stands, little altered, today. In a county where ‘major C18 country houses are few and far between … Sotterley Hall is a pleasant and complete example of its date’.4


see: Kirkleyjohn / Flickr


see: Peggy Cannell

No architect has been ascribed but a confident hand is evident: three-bay pediments feature on all sides of the H-plan house. On the N facade (left) a Venetian window and door arrangement interrupts the regular fenestration.


see source

‘It is capacious and contains some good apartments,’ noted local artist Henry Davy in compiling his truncated survey of Suffolk seats (1827, right). ‘But,’ he went on, ‘according to the usual mode of constructing houses in those days, a great deal of room is wasted on halls and passages.’ The most obviously purposed of these spaces, the entrance hall, features the best of several ‘exceedingly good fireplaces‘.4

As his new house was going up Miles Barne took a bride, Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of controversial ex-governor of Madras, Nathaniel Elwick. Alas, she would have little chance to enjoy life as lady of the manor, dying just two years later but having produced an heir, Miles. The latter would in due course inherit not just the Sotterley estate but also most of Dunwich (acquired 1754, dispersed at auction in 1947) and the Elwick property (May Place in Kent, sold 1938). Not forgetting, of course, the family seat in Parliament.

sotttempA retiring home bird, young Miles ‘refused to succeed his father [as MP] in 1777 because he ‘preferred living in the country”. Helpfully, however, his step-mother had produced a steady supply of half-brothers; less helpfully, they weren’t overly keen on going up to Westminster either though their reluctance stemmed from that awkward affliction of the gentry, younger son syndrome.

‘England offered relatively few opportunities for the impoverished remittance man and gentleman of leisure, other than hanging about the house dependent on the bounty of their elder brother. The majority had to rely on their talents, being launched into the world by their parents with little more than a lump sum and perhaps a fitting education. Worse still, there were relatively few respectable jobs open to the crowd of aspirants.’¹


see: Eric Johnstone / Flickr

Second son Barne Barne took the Dunwich seat in 1777 but was always seeking a salaried post as he was ‘anxious to marry and could not do so without employment’. (His schemes to boost the value of the family estates would also incur big debts.²) Eventually appointed a commissioner of taxes, Barne resigned his seat obliging squire Miles to step into the breach for a period. But ‘it is clear he was a reluctant member for he left no trace of activity in the House and retired on grounds of health’ at the first opportunity.

Brother Snowdon, a struggling barrister, now took his turn as MP, ‘a situation to which my circumstances are hardly equal’. He, too, sought paid office which he eventually secured in 1812 to be succeeded – ‘somewhat reluctantly .. my private fortune being too small to [establish] myself comfortably in London’ – by his soldier sibling, Michael. ‘Of the four Barne brothers in the House, Michael was the only one who married,’ and his only son, Frederick, would be the sitting family member when the unconscionable constituency was finally abolished in 1832.


see: James / Ipernity

Though the parliamentary seat had gone (and having inherited Sotterley) Frederick – a conspicuous man of the turf – would remain seated in Dunwich, which had been maintained as an estate village. He resided at another Barne family property, Grey Friars (r), a house much enlarged ‘in the Victorian seaside style’ for son Col. St. John Barne after his father’s death in 1886. And Frederick Barne would be interred, along with many other family members, at the church of St. James in Dunwich and not in St. Margaret’s which stands close to the Hall at the centre of Sotterley Park.


see: Bing Maps

A designated SSSI, the roughly circular 200-acre park ‘contains a large number of magnificent oaks, some with girths in excess of eight metres suggesting they must have been planted in the late Middle Ages’.5 As at Ickworth House in the west of the county, ‘these give, as they were doubtless meant to do, the air of a Plantagenet deer-park. But each contains a parish church, which no genuine deer-park ever did’.6

In 1886 the churchyard of St. Margaret’s was closed to new burials (“except in such vaults as are now existing”) ostensibly on public health grounds. Suggestions of an ulterior motive took hold, however, and would later resurface in the London prints after the ‘big house’ had instigated a move – ultimately unsuccessful – to now close the church itself. This from the Pall Mall Gazette 15 August, 1889:

When Sotterley people died nothing could prevent their relatives from carrying their dead to the churchyard. But was this not too bad, to have a funeral procession of tearful clodhoppers passing through your park gates and under your very windows, asking no leave but taking it in quite a brutal fashion.’


see: Karin Rowell


Adrian Cable / geograph

A replacement cemetery and octagonal brick chapel had been provided just beyond the bounds of the park (left). Warming to his theme the dyspeptic scribe ventured some architectural criticism, describing the chapel as ‘looking like a ginger beer stall in a cricket ground’ and Sotterley Hall itself as ‘an ugly white-brick mansion of no pretension’.

miles1Today, the ‘beer stall’ is appreciated as a ‘virtually intact and very unusual cemetery chapel of the late C19′, one that is still functioning thanks to the efforts of a dedicated preservation trust. Meanwhile, still ‘surrounded on all sides by a continuous belt of plantations and woods providing that air of privacy so typical of C18 parks’,5 the lauded husbandry of Sotterley’s current owner (left) continues to ensure that the sensibilities of unwary passers-by are not affronted by unexpected sightings of the (Grade I listed) ‘ugly mansion’…

[Sotterley Estate]

¹ Stone, L.,Fawtier Stone, J. An open elite? England 1540-1880, 1986.
² Lawrence, R. Southwold River: Georgian life in the Blyth Valley, 1990.
³ Lloyd, R. Welcome to Sotterley, 2007.
4 Bettley, J., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Suffolk: East, 2015.
Williamson, T. Suffolk’s gardens and parks, 2000.
Rackham, O. The history of the countryside, 1986.
See also:
Kenworthy-Browne, J. Burke’s and Savills guide to country houses: East Anglia, 1981.
Suckling, A. The history and antiquities of the County of Suffolk, etc., 1846.



On display in one of the gloomier corners of the British Museum, easily overlooked, is a richly decorated nine-inch porcelain soup plate. This C18 object is presented as an illustration both of the skills of Chinese artisans and also of the lucrative export trade which came their way via wealthy patrons in the West. But no less worthy of remark, from Handed on‘s perspective at least, is the historical dimension represented by the plate’s dominant heraldic emblem, being the family arms of the Okeovers of Okeover Hall.


The order for what would ultimately be a 154-piece dinner service was placed by Mr. Leake Okeover, Esq., in 1738 at a cost of £1 per plate. ‘The service is the only known instance in which the original painting which was sent to China to be copied has survived; it remains in the family,’ noted Christie’s in 1975 in the course of selling 100 pieces which no longer would (r). ‘The reproduction is exceptionally accurate and marks out this service as one of the finest ever made.’¹

Nought but the best seems to have been the way of Leake Okeover (b.1702) who would inherit the Okeover estate on the death of his grandfather in 1730. The orphaned son of Thomas Okeover and heiress Catherine Leake was free-spending from the moment he came of age as his ‘very extensive accounts‘ record. ‘Bills reveal lavish expenditure on jewellery, clothes,’² and fine pictures including that Georgian gentry must-have, the ‘conversation piece’, typically depicting squire and company in the foreground of a handsome abode.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

see: Yale Center for British Art

In 1745 Leake (above, seated) recruited an artist for whom such pictures would become a speciality, namely Arthur Devis, not long relocated to London from his native Preston. While his figures are often formulaic, his scenes somewhat ‘stage-managed … Devis appears to be a fairly accurate delineator of a sitter’s house’.³ Except that in this particular case the house as depicted did not actually exist – and never would. Leake Okeover had gotten a little ahead of himself, this version of Okeover Hall being destined to remain forever just an artist’s impression.

Certainly, grand plans to radically upgrade an existing house were well under way by this time. But before any work had started on the principal south front with its imposing portico things began to go awry.  Firstly, in 1747, Okeover’s architect Joseph Sanderson inconveniently died. Soon after, Leake’s extravagance finally began to catch up with him, eventually fleeing abroad to avoid his creditors doing the same. Six hundred years of Okeover heritage was suddenly in distinct peril.


see: Google Maps

The manor of Okeover had passed in the direct male line since a grant of c.1150 by the Abbot of Burton. The home range was imparked soon thereafter, bounded in the east by the River Dove (also the county border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire). At the death c.1400 of John of Gaunt’s ally and sometime enforcer
Sir Philip Okeover the family’s landholdings were on their way to encircling the nearby town of Ashbourne.

While Sir Philip’s son and heir Thomas would twice be elected to parliament for Derbyshire he largely ‘avoided the responsibilities of office, preferring to live quietly on his estates’. These he expanded significantly in the county and beyond through his second marriage to heiress Thomasina Sallowe and of which he would remain squire for 60 years. This record would stand until the time of Sir Rowland Okeover (d.1692) whose 67-year tenure was also notably fruitful.


see: Government Art Collection

60 different sorts of apple, 20 sorts of pears, 35 sorts of apricots and other plumms are to be found in the gardens of this ancient seat.’ A seat which at the time of this approving visitation by Robert Plot (then first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum) in the course of compiling his ‘Natural history of Staffordshire‘ (1686), was a mid-sized Tudor house within a square moat (r).


see: Thornber

This was the place to which Leake Okeover removed in 1730, vacating Wymeswold Hall (his mother’s Leicestershire legacy which he had received upon coming of age eight years before). Leake would quickly make his mark at the site of his ancient birthright with a large classical stable block which together with the now private All Saints church (both left) remain essentially unchanged elements of the Okeover tableau.

But it would be at least a dozen years before thoughts turned to seriously remodelling the Hall, setting in train a morphing process which would effectively last two hundred years.


see: Google Maps

Phase One consisted of matching wings, broadly similar in proportion to the stable block, extending north at either end of the existing house; the east wing survives intact. The design for the final major element of the project, Joseph Sanderson’s patron-pleasing grand south front (below), would be a last-minute addition to Arthur Devis’s painting following a visit to the artist’s London studio by Sanderson in December 1746.


see: Yale Center for British Art

While the architect’s death the following August did not necessarily mean the end of Leake’s grand designs, his spending would. In the spring of 1751, facing debts of about £25,000, he took off to northern France for almost two years, lodging under the alias ‘Mr. Scrimpshaw‘ and leaving his wife and trustees to firefight the liabilities.

Wymeswold Hall was among substantial estate assets sold to meet the debts but in correspondence across the Channel Leake refused to countenance the disposal of Okeover itself: “I cannot nor ever will be brought to part with Okeover. I will much sooner never see England again than do it.”4


see: Peter Barr @ geograph


see: Churchcrawler

Work on the Hall eventually recommenced but the block at the S end of the east wing (left) was to be the last substantial addition before Leake died in 1765. This space features ‘exceptionally fine’ decorative plasterwork and joinery.5 Additionally, ‘there is much fine C18 furniture at Okeover’ and Leake’s especial weakness for exquisite ironwork remains much in evidence around the grounds.4



The Devis painting above is notable not only for the inclusion of a house which did not exist but also for the exclusion of a wife who most certainly did. A boys club of chums replaces the more typical family group, a scene which would never be possible since Leake and Mary – who died within months of one another, memorialised in profile by Joseph Wilton (r) – had no children. Nor would the next two heirs, the deeper reaches of the Okeover male line being mined until 1912. That year saw the death of Haughton Okeover whose remarkable 76-year tenure encompassed the entirety of Queen Victoria’s reign.


see: Country Life

The C19 saw ‘incoherent, piecemeal’ changes to the Hall: the removal of the west wing, the doubling of the S-E pavilion and a two-storey extension into the space once occupied by the original Tudor house (left).4 A satisfactory holistic resolution would not be achieved until the 1950s when Okeover passed in the female line, a turn which would also see the family’s local landholding coincidentally double in size.


see: Lost Heritage

On the opposite side of Ashbourne lies Osmaston, ‘a neat estate village with many picturesque cottages set against the backdrop of the park’,6 which itself is ‘stunning indeed’.7 The story of colossal Osmaston Manor (r) is excellently recounted here. ‘A magnificent example of that class of mansion in which wealthy Englishmen delight to dwell’8 …

… Osmaston was built by local industrialist Francis Wright between 1846-49 and acquired by Liverpool brewing magnate and philanthropist Sir Andrew Walker, 1st Bt, in 1884. In an unusual familial twist Sir Andrew and his son and heir Peter would marry two of squire Haughton Ealdred Okeover’s eight sisters, Maude (as his second wife) and Ethel, respectively.


see: Stones Events

Their brother died childless in 1955, the 3,000-acre Okeover estate now passing to Haughton’s only living nephew, Peter and Ethel Walker’s son, Sir Ian Walker, 3rd Bt, then incumbent at similar-sized Osmaston (r). Owning two houses six miles apart Walker eventually elected to demolish impractical Osmaston in favour of Okeover Hall, also becoming Sir Ian Walker-Okeover in obeisance to the ancient lineage.


see: Eamon Curry

‘Arguably the finest house built in England in the 1950s,’ Sir Ian’s remodelling of Okeover Hall was masterminded by architect Marshall Sisson. In retaining the Georgian E wing and recreating a counterpart, Sisson essentially reasserted Sanderson’s three-sided plan. The S-E pavilion was split to bookend an interposed nine-bay S section.5


see: Peak District Online

If the latter’s muted central bow is hardly the imposing statement of Leake Okeover’s imaginings the opposite, courtyard-facing entrance front is less effacing. Featuring ‘a full-height projecting porch with a pediment and giant statues on top from the gardens at Osmaston’,5 this is however not easily seen since Okeover remains the wholly private home of Sir Andrew and Lady Philippa Walker-Okeover.

And, while it is possible to walk these unsold acres and to view the scene as captured by Arthur Devis in the mid-C18, be aware that the bovine residents of the Okeover Estate, too, can be very protective of this ancient manor…

[GII* listing][Osmaston Park][Glenmuick Estate]

1. Howard, D., Ayers, J. China for the West, Vol. 2, 1978.
2. Mowl, T., Barre, D. The historic gardens of Staffordshire, 2009.
3. Harris, J. The artist and the country house, 1979.
4. Oswald, A. Okeover Hall I/II/III, Country Life, Jan/Mar 1964.
5. Robinson, J.M. The latest country houses, 1984.
6. Thorold, H. A Shell guide to Derbyshire, 1972.
7. Craven, M., Stanley, M. The Derbyshire country house: 2, 2001.
8. Country Life, July 12, 1902.

Britain is still remarkably green and rural, very little of the country is developed. Lack of land to build on is one the reasons houses are so expensive. Traditional landed gentry are just as much in evidence as they were a century ago or even a millennium for that matter.’


see: BBC / YouTube

Words taken from a BBC TV exposition of land ownership in England and Wales (r), now ten years old but no less relevant today. “It’s the old money that’s given us the most trouble – there’s no obligation on them to reveal what they own so they rarely do,” declares the presenter. Happily, several less reticent types – the late Earl of Lonsdale and the present Dukes of Northumberland and Rutland – were winkled out for interview.

This 90-minute documentary drew upon an earlier publication, Who owns Britain (Kevin Cahill, 2001), which had attempted to update the only systematic survey since the Domesday Book, the Return of Owners of Land of 1873. Cahill posited an ensuing Establishment agenda to expunge the Return from the historical record, a mission exemplified by the book English land and English landlords (1881), ‘a trumpet blast from the top of Victorian society [by] an over-educated dullard’, the Hon. George Brodrick.

As the second son of the 7th Viscount Midleton, Brodrick would never become squire of his family’s substantial acreage in Surrey and Ireland. He was, however, to become a significant de facto landowner when, in the same year that ‘English Land’ was published, he was appointed Warden of Merton College, Oxford.


see: Merton College

The university college was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton and would be endowed with the income from parcels of tenanted land he snapped up hither and yon. In 1271 Merton acquired 385 acres in the parish of Barkby, some six miles north-east of Leicester; 745 years on, Merton College is still the owner of this property and has the original paperwork to prove it (r). Including as it does the Malt Shovel public house, Merton’s Barkby holdings might perhaps be represented as the hole in the doughnut hereabouts…

… being surrounded, from the late Middle Ages on, by a similarly abiding though progressively more substantial domain, that of the Pochin family of Barkby Hall.


see: Red Poll Cattle Society


see: Bing Maps

In 1447 Richard Pochin would marry local heiress Alice Willoughby. Seventeen generations on they remain in place having thenceforth ‘increasingly accumulated a large estate in the village’ and beyond. Running north-to-south and separating the two halves of Barkby village, the Hall’s ‘parkland (r) and agricultural setting have remained fairly unaltered for two centuries’ [Barkby Conservation Appraisal, 2011]. Which, unsurprisingly, is how the locals like it – hence, in recent times, scenes like this:


For since 2008 the residents of Barkby and the hamlet of Barkby Thorpe just to the south have been coming to terms with the prospect of ‘the biggest single housing development in the whole of Leicestershire’. Bringing the edge of the city ever closer, the North East of Leicester Sustainable Urban Extension (r) is a ‘£445 million scheme covering 800 acres [which] will see 4,500 new houses being built on what is currently farmland over the next fifteen years’.


see: Fisher German

The land in question is 90% owned by the Pochin Estate who have entered into partnership with a company called CEG. “We’re not just property developers, we’re place makers,” they declare, the first ‘place’ here seeming likely to be the 575 houses of ‘Melton Brook’ beginning sometime next year. “We are working with the landowner on a really high standard of architecture,” a CEG spokesman told the local press in March, an image of the Duchy of Cornwall’s Poundbury development in Dorset featuring at the back of this promotional literature.

A clue to the architectural leanings of landowner John Pochin (above) can perhaps be found in the perceptible alterations he has made to his own house, Barkby Hall (courtesy of aerial photography since ‘the Hall and parkland are almost invisible from the rest of the village’).


see: Google Maps

As we shall see, a fair measure of conservatism and sober restraint appear to be the Pochin Hall-marks not just of the present generation but down the ages, evidenced by this description from 1790:

Mr William Pochin lives in a plain dwelling environed by high walls and shaded by some lofty elms. There are no pictures to attract within this quakerly retreat nor any scenery without which deserves particular notice. All is like the worthy owner, plain and destitute of ostentation.’

wmpochinThe hall at this time was a C16 century house on its last legs, its ‘worthy owner’ being the MP for Leicestershire, founder of the still-thriving Pochin School in Barkby and a significant expander of the family estates. ‘Destitute of ostentation’ he may have been but William Pochin was also to remain destitute of a spouse, his eventual heir being a relative, Charles Pochin.  The latter’s succession ended a 300-year father-to-son descent of the Barkby estate…


see: Matt Chamberlain / YouTube

… a sequence which had first been imperiled by the simultaneous deaths from smallpox of the first wife and young son of Thomas Pochin, William’s father, in 1726. (The pair were buried together in St. Mary’s church behind the Hall, left, wherein a great many Pochins past are informatively memorialised.) Thomas’s second wife was a Trollope…

… Lincolnshire heiress Mary of that ilk, and they would go on to produce two sons and a daughter. But all three were to die childless, George and the aforesaid William within months of each other in 1798, and sister Mary who would have life use of the Barkby estates until her decease six years later.


see: Kairos Press

So all now passed to their uncle’s great-grandson, Charles Pochin, who, not long after being elected to Parliament as MP for Enniskillen in 1807, decided that Barkby Hall should be rebuilt. But £30,000 failed to buy his new abode a better press than its predecessor: ‘Barkby Hall is a large, plain, unadorned gentleman’s house, the situation of which has no particular beauties in scenery to recommend it’.

The Regency interior has been similarly characterised save for its main staircase, an elevating presence in every sense: ‘In the style of Wyatt and on a particularly grand scale, a main flight rises from the centre of the hall, divides and returns, stone treads and ornate metal trellis balustrading toplit beneath a domed ceiling.’


see: Andy Alston


see: Charnwood Council

At the turn of this century, the present owner’s wish to enhance the Hall’s main front met little resistance from heritage bodies: ‘It would be difficult to raise any strong objections to the proposals as they do improve the visual appearance of what are rather bland facades.’ Stucco-relieving rustication now flanks the existing balustraded entrance which itself gained emphasis with a stonework portico.


see: Bing Maps

That Barkby’s previously severe appearance had not been addressed by earlier generations might perhaps be explained by the fact that since 1762 the family had had the option of a second (somewhat more characterful) house elsewhere in the county. Edmondthorpe Hall, the favoured abode of William Pochin (d. 1901) through the latter half of the C19, burnt down in 1942 whilst under military occupation. Its plan, however, is still clearly evident (r) and land thereabouts remains part of the Pochin Estate.

In 1855 William Pochin’s youngest brother, Ralph, married Anna Winstanley and would adopt her family name seven years later when she inherited the Braunstone Hall estate on the opposite side of Leicester. This house is still there today (just) and its park is still a park. But they are an oasis in a suburban landscape, the entire 1000-acre Winstanley estate having been compulsorily purchased in 1925 by Leicester Corporation to meet the pressing need for housing in the area.

Fast-forward to 2016: ‘Landed gentry hold key to thousands of affordable homes,’ ran the headlines at the beginning of this year. With Phase I of a proposed 4,500 houses now an imminent reality, no one can say that the Pochins of Barkby Hall are not doing their bit…


see: Google Streetview

See also:
Plumptre, G. Scenes from the summerhouse [Barkby Hall gardens], Country Life, 2 Aug 1990.
Shipley, P. The Leicestershire gentry: its social & cultural networks 1790-1875, 2010.

‘Scorrier House, Tregullow and Burncoose are fine examples of grand houses and estates built for mining industrialists. These predominantly belonged to one family – the Williams’, one of the greatest mining dynasties in the Old World.’ (2004)

No need for the past tense here because they still do – and rather more besides. Likewise, the family’s renown, originally founded on the exploitation of Cornwall’s subterranean bounty, also endures although more these days through endeavours overground. Their name could be said to be more widely known than ever, in fact; at this time of year chances are there’s a Williamsii abloom somewhere near you right now.


see: HHA

One sunny day early last month saw a presentation on the lawns of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall (r), owner Charles Williams accepting the award of Garden of the Year 2016 from the Historic Houses Association and prize sponsor, Christie’s. ‘Caerhays is very much a traditional Cornish spring flowering garden, open from February to the beginning of June.’

The Castle itself can also be visited during this limited season, Caerhays being the most accessible and architecturally extravagent tip of the wider Williams family’s West Country iceberg, extending to half-a-dozen houses and an estimated 20,000 acres.1

Allowing architect John Nash free rein to create this Picturesque vision on the south Cornish coast financially embarrassed owner John Trevanion so acutely that he was forced to abandon his ancient family seat and flee abroad. The virtually derelict house would eventually be acquired in 1853 by Michael Williams (1784-1858), the fourth generation of a family ‘who made the other mining magnates of Cornwall look like under-achievers’2 and was, as will be seen, a ‘bold, skillful architect of his own colossal fortunes’.


see: Countryman’s Fair

The gardens at Caerhays began as the private passion of Michael’s grandson, John Charles Williams (d. 1939), who, whilst waiting to inherit the Castle from his mother, purchased Werrington Park (r), fifty miles to the north, from the Duke of Northumberland. An ‘ancient house’ with significant Georgian and late-Victorian remodelling, both Grade I Werrington (‘admirably sited’ above a large landscaped park, ‘excellent interior decoration’) and Caerhays remain in the possession of JC Williams’ descendants.3 As does…


see: CornishMemory.com

…Burncoose (left), some fifty miles south-west down the A30.  The most modest of this trio, it would be the base from which, after acquisition in 1715, the Williamses would ascend from tin and copper mine manager/owners to landed society, ‘their wealth rivalling that of potentates and nabobs’.4


see: Street View

‘The well-known nursery and woodland garden is open all year round but the house, remaining in the Williams family, is strictly private*.’5  Burncoose was inherited in 1775 by John Williams (d. 1841) ‘the greatest adventurer, ablest manager, best practical engineer of his time’ in Cornwall. John, however, would leave the early C19 development of this property to his son, Michael (who would later buy Caerhays), having built, in 1778, a new house four miles away…

… at Scorrier.

orchardToday, Caerhays and its commercial counterpart Burncoose have the recognized horticultural credentials but could the profile of Scorrier House and its garden (whose annual open afternoon has just been and gone) be set to rise? For this spring has seen the publication of a new book by bestselling historical novelist Tracy ‘The girl with the pearl earring‘ Chevalier. At the edge of the orchard concerns a struggling fictional family of American settlers, one of whom strikes out for the West Coast where he falls in with real-life Victorian plant hunter William Lobb.

In the years immediately prior to his globetrotting missions seeking out exotic blooms on behalf of the Veitch nursery Lobb had been head gardener…


Scorrier House


see: Scorrier House

… at Scorrier and is ‘responsible for the rare and fine specimens in the grounds’.6. Until last year when it sadly succumbed to old age (r), these included the tallest monkey puzzle tree in the land.

Lobb’s employer at Scorrier, John Williams, handed the property on to his eldest son, the aforesaid Michael. Having already successfully diversified into copper smelting, a quick-thinking stroke of enterprise would see Michael Williams famously play up his fortune in 1845 (critically, just prior to the arrival of a national rail link).


see: BBC / YouTube

On learning during a visit to London that the price of tin had suddenly gone through the roof Williams took the first coach back to Exeter, galloped the rest of the way on horseback and snapped up all available tin options before the news reached Cornwall. Buying low selling high turbocharged Williams’ finances, enabling the acquisition of Caerhays and also the expansion of Scorrier House eastwards overlooking the park (r).


see: CornishMemory.com

The historical division of the Williams estates occurred upon Michael Williams death in 1858, Caerhays and Burncoose going to eldest son John Michael, Scorrier to his sixth, George. George’s son John inherited in 1891 and returned home from the hunting field one afternoon 17 years on to find Scorrier all but destroyed by ‘one of the most destructive fires ever recorded in Cornwall’.7


see: Scorrier House

Scorrier House was quickly rebuilt, however, ‘the interior planned around a sumptuous, extravagant staircase and entrance hall’ adorned by pictures which were among the items rescued from incineration.3 (To Williams’ particular dismay the latter did not include the contents of the cellar. As one fireman told reporters, ‘bottles of champagne were hissing and popping off in all directions’.7)

The sound of popping champagne corks still regularly resounds hereabouts though in altogether jollier circumstances. For, while Scorrier ‘remains a private family home in the hands of Richard and Caroline Williams, their dogs and family’, the house and its ‘400-acre oasis of parkland and garden’5 are today a popular wedding venue. Now it’s not entirely inconceivable that the natural exuberance of such events may occasionally come to the notice of Scorrier’s next-door neighbour…


see: Bing Maps

… being Tregullow House (left), presently the home of Richard Williams’ younger brother, James.


see: CornishMemory.com

Tregullow was built in 1826 by William Williams, a younger brother of Michael (of Scorrier and later Caerhays), the proximity possibly explained by their having married the Eales sisters, Caroline and Elizabeth.  The brothers’ architectural tastes, too, were seemingly not dissimilar: two-storey Classical houses, relatively plain but with imposing rectangular porte-cocheres.


see: Cornwall Council


see source

With an inferno-free history, G.II Tregullow retains ‘numerous features of significant quality’ (r). In recent times both the house and its ‘truly secret‘ garden have felt the benefit of the present owner’s remunerative former career in international finance, undergoing a programme of substantial renovation.8

The builder of Tregullow ‘did even better in status if not in wealth’ than his brother (legendary tin speculator Michael), ‘acquiring not only a 6,000-acre estate but also a baronetcy’.9 Created Sir William Williams, of Tregullow, in 1866, that this title has already reached its tenth incarnation is due to the premature demise of the third baronet and each of his three sons between 1903 and 1917…


see: Upcott House

… a sequence of events which would precipitate the separation of house and title. Today, Sir Donald Williams, 10 Bt, ‘of Tregullow’, is in fact of Upcott House, near Barnstaple in Devon. ‘Set amongst gardens and woodland with far-reaching views across the Taw Valley, Upcott is owned by the Williams family, our home since it was built in 1752.’

This is not the family’s first outpost over the border, however. Another Devon house, Gnaton Hall, was owned and occupied by Michael Williams and his descendants through the second half of the C19. Much closer to home back in Cornwall the same line would also lease and significantly alter the two houses of the Beauchamps, Pengreep and Trevince (which remains in that family). And in 1809 the builder of Scrorrier, John Williams, acquired Sandhill House wherein he doubtless enjoyed his retirement (having remarried, aged 79, a Miss Edwards, 25).

Interviewed recently, Caroline Williams of Scorrier House remarked how, ‘when they left home [their now grown-up children] found it strange to live in houses that other people, rather than family, had lived in’. It would seem they would have to travel some way beyond the West Country simply to find one…

[Scorrier House][Tregullow][*Burncoose]

1. Cahill, K. Who owns Britain, 2001.
2. Smelt, M. 101 Cornish lives, 2006.
3. Beacham, P., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Cornwall, 2014.
4. Cornish Times, 20 June 1857.
5. Gamble, B. Cornwall’s great houses and gardens, 2014.
6. Delderfield, E.R. West Country historic houses & their families, 1968.
7. The West Briton & Cornwall Advertiser, 5 March, 1908.
8. Oral history of Barings Bank: James Williams interview, British Library, 2009.
9. Thompson, F.M.L. Life after death, Economic History Review, 1990.

Oft-times the best laid plans can come to naught. In the case of the most famous address in the land, quite literally so.

I told the contractor how I wanted the lettering done and got something entirely different..and completely wrong.”

The words of architect Raymond Erith in 1964 not long after having completed a major renovation and expansion of the official residences in Downing Street, London SW1. Erith was referring to a detail which, although relatively minor in the scheme of what was an inevitably high-profile, sometimes fraught, project would become something of a defining emblem: the wonky zero.


see: Gov.uk

No matter what moment is being played out before it, Handed on has long been vaguely transfixed by this quirky badge of Britishness. Or bodge, as Erith would have it: “The numerals..are beastly,” he declared, “all I want to do is forget about it”. But there would be no hiding place for his newly-finished creation in 1963 when scandal convulsed the political establishment. All eyes were on No.10 as sensational revelations about the behaviour of War Minister John Profumo pushed Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ship towards the rocks.

Immediately after his resignation from government Profumo was able to give a rabid press pack the slip for thirteen days, hiding out at the Warwickshire village home of his constituents Air Commodore and Mrs. Victor Willis. And it’s not too fanciful to speculate that the last-named had also been affording sanctuary of a sort to Raymond Erith throughout his trying times at No.10, being ascribed as the client for a building regarded as among the architect’s ‘most characteristic and successful’ works.




Exactly contemporaneous with his Westminster project, the Gatley Park Folly would be chosen to illustrate the covers of both the only substantive monograph on Erith’s career (left, by his daughter Lucy Archer) and the catalogue which accompanied the Sir John Soane’s Museum restrospective in 2004 (r), some thirty years after his death.

One of the more defiantly un-modern 1960s buildings of listed status (GII), the domed three-storey tower on an oval plan exemplifies Erith’s distinctive style: restrained classicism significantly informed by locally appropriate forms and material. Built around a spiral staircase newel post ‘reputedly the trunk of one vast tree’ and commanding spectacular views, this indulgent little edifice even featured a small library.1 John Fowler was hired to fit out the interiors but he and Erith ‘did not work together terribly well, for Erith was a rather austere man with little understanding of how most people lived’.2

The residence was concieved as a dower house for Peggy Willis on the ancestral estate of her former husband, Philip Dunne, in association with their son and heir, Capt. Thomas Dunne. In a remarkable echo of previous events, precisely ten years after the Profumo affair the Dunnes’ daughter Philippa and son-in-law the 2nd Earl Jellicoe would pitch up at Gatley seeking rural refuge from political scandal. In May 1973 Jellicoe, then Leader of the House of Lords, had decided to fall on his sword in anticipation of more call girl revelations. Their bolthole would be quickly rumbled, however: ‘Two hours later, the press knocked on the door at Gatley. The News of the World wanted to upstage one of their rivals by bringing Christine Keeler to be photographed at the bottom of the drive.’3

But Herefordshire remains as good a place as any in which to hide out. ‘A remote and seemingly secret part of the world, to the layman it means half-timbered houses and the county is rich in them.’4 And it would seem Gatley Park was just one amongst them when it was acquired by Royalist parliamentarian Sir Sampson Eure in 1633. Dendochronology ‘suggests that Gatley was built during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign. It would appear that Sir Sampson added a brick skin to the original timber-framed Tudor house’.

The central cluster of nine octagonal chimneys is, however, thought to predate this work. Eure’s gabled house was on a modest ‘square plan with a projecting panel-lined porch’; extant metal fixtures at Gatley still bear dated engravings of his arms or initials. The estate would be sold for the last time in 1678, Sir Samuel’s widowed daughter-in-law selling to Philip Dunne (‘descended from the Welsh family of Dwn, and through them from many of the early Welsh princes’) whence it has passed in the male line to this day.


see: Historic England

The next three generations at Gatley are memorialised together in Aymestrey parish church. Philip’s son Thomas (d. 1734) was responsible for various interior enhancements including much panelling and ‘an overmantel with an early C18 painting of the house in its landscape’.5 But the house was to remain substantially unaltered until the last years of the C19 as family attentions turned elsewhere…

… initially to the nearby town of Ludlow, just over the border into Shropshire.


see: Street View


see source

‘In or around 1757’ Thomas’s son, also Thomas (d .1770), created a pair of Georgian townhouses – ‘smart little buildings with a raised walk in front of them’ – at the lower end of Broad Street. The scene is little changed today (above, looking south). In 1770 his son and heir Martin Dunne (left, mounted) ‘moved into no. 36 and practiced there for the next forty-four years as a doctor’.6

‘A practicioner much ahead of his time who did his own experiments on the use of electricity in healing,’7 Dr. Martin died childless and the Dunne estate now passed to his nephew Thomas. The latter married Ann Smith whose own substantial paternal inheritance, Bircher Hall just two miles SW of Gatley, would be enlarged by Thomas c.1827 and become the favoured Dunne abode for the next two generations.


see source

(In 1854, the same year as her husband’s death, Ann somewhat unexpectedly inherited Four Ashes Hall in Staffordshire (left) from a distant relative. Having little need of another large house it was given to her second son, Charles, who took the name Amphlett in exchange for an estate which has since passed by descent in that line and ‘remains something of a time capsule‘.)

It was in the last decade of the C19 that Gatley Park took on the enlarged footprint seen today, if not it’s exact form. For so ‘appalling‘ and ‘aesthetically disastrous’ were new wings east and west that they would be ‘thoroughly remodelled , 1907-8, to [now] conform remarkably will with the gabled brick centre’.5

Secreted away at the end of a ‘magnificent’ kilometre-long winding drive which rises through dense woodland (‘halfway between parkland and arboretum’), 2,500-acre Gatley retains the quality which was to see it cast momentarily as a fastness from political scandal.8


see: Google Maps


see: Historic England

Not that any such has ever attached to Gatley Park’s present occupant, of course. Being Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow and the Minister of State for Defence Procurement in the current Tory administration. ‘Philip lives near Ludlow where he was brought up on the family farm,’ says his official website. Now coyness is hardly the first attribute one might ascribe to the typical elected politician but Dunne is by no means alone at Westminster in seeking to play down a sizeable ancestral inheritance.

The MP for Dorset South, for instance, Richard Drax was ‘brought up in Dorset .. where local schoolchildren [can] spend a day on his farm’ aka the 7,000-acre Charborough Park estate complete with its fine mansion (as previously featured). Berwick-upon-Tweed’s Anne-Marie Trevelyan makes no mention at all of the family home at Grade I Netherwitton Hall while Richard Benyon MP, present squire of the 14,000-acre Englefield estate (by descent since 1635), is simply ‘a local farmer .. born and raised in West Berkshire’.

One hundred and fifty years ago over 400 MPs ‘came from families owning 2,000 acres or more’. In 1910 – when Philip Dunne’s great-grandfather Edward was the member for Walsall – ‘the landowning fraternity’ still constituted a quarter of the House of Commons.9 Today, while there are several ‘farmers’, the number of ‘landowners’ is apparently zero. Another wonky political zero, you might say…

1. House and Garden, February 1966.
2. Wood, M. John Fowler: Prince of decorators, 2007.
3. Windmill, L.A. A British Achilles, 2005.
4. Reid, P. Burke’s and Savills guide to country houses. Vol. 2, 1980.
5. Brooks, A. and Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Herefordshire, 2012.
6. Girouard, M. The English town, 1990.
7. Lloyd, D. Broad Street – its houses and residents through 8 centuries, 1979.
8. Mowl, T. and Bradney, J. Historic gardens of Herefordshire, 2012.
9. Beckett, J.V. The aristocracy in England 1660-1914, 1986.


From the official record of the House of Lords dated March 22, 1789:

Q. “What did you see pass between Charles Charles and Mrs. Nash in February 1779?”

A. “When I went down, I went to Charles Charles’s Room, the Cloaths were turned up on one Side; Charles Charles’s Arms were round her; she had her Shift and under Petticoat on.”

Q.”In what Posture?”

A. “In a leaning Posture.”

Q. “Were they upon the Bed?”

A. “They were in the Bed.”

Q. “What did you observe at that Time?”

A. “I had no good Opinion of them.”

At once confirming that a) divorce has long been a messy old business, and b) that Handed on is not above resorting to a bit of gratuitous salacious detail to grab the reader’s attention. The above being an extract from the proceedings of a parliamentary Bill, entitled “An Act to dissolve the Marriage of John Nash Architect with Jane Kerr his now Wife, and to enable him to marry again’. Such was the requirement of the age. The helpfully disapproving witness here being probed to establish grounds was Mrs. Ann Morgan, landlady, of Aberavon. And also, as it happens, a close relative of John Nash…

…who was not, at this juncture, ‘the celebrated John Nash’ of Regency fame but a chastened bankrupt on the long road to rehabilitation. A long and mostly Welsh road, it turned out. The implosion of an early property development enterprise in London’s Bloomsbury Square would see Nash eventually fleeing the capital to south Wales, ‘his business reputation in ruins’.1 His wife Jane had already been packed off to the Principality, her shopaholic tendencies only exacerbating the financial strain; Nash enlisted a childhood friend, the aforesaid Mr Charles Charles, ‘to ride out with her and show her the pleasures of the country’.

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink?

The suspicion of collusion ultimately doomed Nash’s divorce petition but not before several other associates had been summoned to Parliament to bare witness, among them a fellow architect, Samuel Simon Saxon. In 1785 John Nash’s modest first step on the path back to professional credibility had been a winning tender jointly with Saxon to re-roof St. Peter’s church in Carmarthen; their partnership would continue for several years.2 Today, while many landmark creations in the capital and beyond attest to Nash’s wildly successful renaissance, the name of Samuel Saxon, a pupil of Sir William Chambers at the influential Office of Works until 1782, languishes in obscurity.3 Little of his work is recorded and in fact just one house designed by him is known to survive – but it’s a gem.



see: Natasha Thompson Weddings & Lifestyle


‘Courteenhall is a remarkably perfect and rather unusual example of the mid-sized Georgian house of the last decade of the C18. Since it was completed no change of significance has been made.’4 The seat of the Wake family, this house and estate has passed directly from father to son, the present head of the family being Sir Hereward Wake, 14th baronet, who turns 100 later this year.


see: South Northants Council

If the brief from Sir William Wake, 9th bt., had been for a practically proportioned house of stately refinement then Samuel Saxon pretty much nailed it. Humphry Repton in his ‘Red Book’ for Courteenhall (1791/93) notes that he was consulted both as to the siting of a new house and its basic form, being ‘induced to prefer that which has been so elegantly designed and executed by my ingenious friend Mr. Saxon’.5


see: Lost Heritage

The pair were also responsible for the creation of Buckminster Park, Leicestershire, (c.1793-8, Saxon’s only other known house, demolished in 1952 and replaced), a connection suggested to explain just how it came to be that the enviable opportunity ‘to design a completely new house on a virgin site was given to a little-known pupil of Chambers’.4

However, Handed on finds another timeline no less persuasive.

Inheriting Courteenhall and its existing Elizabethan manor house as a minor, the 9th baronet came of age in 1789. The following year would be a lucrative one, the sale of a substantial property in Norfolk yielding £18,000 whilst William’s marriage in July to Mary Sitwell of Renishaw Hall added a further £25,000 to the coffers.5 Meanwhile, on May 15 1790 it was announced after an open competition that the architect to design and supervise the building of Northampton’s new General Infirmary – just six miles north of Courteenhall – was to be a certain Mr. Samuel Saxon. Construction of the hospital duly got under way but it would seem that the attention of its designer was soon distracted:


see: ARM/Vimeo


see: Google

‘Mr. Saxon presumably drew his commission but he had seldom been near the building, leaving everything to his Clerk of Works.’6 Genteel, wealthy patron trumps municipal functionality? Who can say.

(Remarkably, the contemporaneous connection between Saxon’s only two known buildings continues as Courteenhall’s present occupant and estate manager, the grandson of Sir Hereward Wake, is also a sometime medic and presently attached to .. Northampton General Hospital.)


see:Eneka Stewart

However it was that Samuel Saxon landed the job, there’s no doubting that Courteenhall bears the stamp of a focussed mind. ‘The design throughout is remarkably coherent,’ characterised by a wholly admirable restraint.7 Of local limestone ashlar, the pedimented, uniquely 7-bay garden facade (top) announces itself most directly, a subtle contrast to the more understated entrance front (r). A most pleasing exterior which is more than matched within: ‘[That] Saxon was an architect of very considerable ability [is] most clearly shown by the interiors.’8

courthallAt one remove from the long entrance hall, ‘the thin, cantilevered treads of the principal staircase’, top-lit by a glazed oval dome, rise against marbled walls, ‘a rare survival’. (Picture: Tom Jamieson / Courteenhall Events@Facebook). Beneath fine decorative friezes fluted columns articulate each of the principal spaces, the apsidal end of the library, ‘beautifully contrived with doors curved to fit’, exemplifying Saxon’s sure-footed finesse.9


see: Courteenhall

Sitting at the heart of the 3,000-acre estate, Courteenhall’s presence is one of graceful reticence. The same can hardly be said, however, of the stables across the park, born with ideas above their station and which predate the house by perhaps two decades. Credited to John Carr of York and now converted for residential use – move in! – the always incongruously scaled block…


see: Aerialvue @ Vimeo

… was erected for the mostly absent 8th baronet seemingly in an effort to keep up with the (hunting mad) Joneses locally. In fact, prior to his father deciding otherwise, his own family literally were the Joneses round here.

The Wake Joneses to be precise. The Wake lineage can be definitively traced back to at least the C13; from 1265 they were lords of the manor of Blisworth immediately next door to Courteenhall before selling in 1532. The happenstance which would see them boomerang back here 140 years later suggests a certain predestination about the Wakes’ habitation of this particular corner of England.


see: Bing Maps

In the grounds at Courteenhall is a C17 schoolhouse (r) now partly converted for residential use and latterly the home of Sir Hereward and Lady Wake. A Latin inscription above the main door records that the school had been endowed by Sir Samuel Jones, the acquisitive son of a wealthy London merchant, who bought the Courteenhall estate in 1647. With no children of his own Jones’ intended heir was his nephew, Sam Pierrepoint, until some offence by the latter saw him cut out of the will.

Fortune now favoured the only other Samuel in the family, the fifth son of Sir Samuel’s niece, wife of Sir William Wake, 3rd bt., on condition of taking the name. But the drought of direct heirs continued. Two ‘Wake Jones’ nephews and a distant cousin later Courteenhall (and several other properties) came to Sir William, 7th bt., who had been born and elected to stay a Wake. The name had been reclaimed ‘but it was Samuel Jones who supplied the seat and inheritance upon which a succession of Wakes have lived happily ever after since’.10


see: Archive.org

Today, the family’s distinctive heraldic emblem, the “Wake Knot“, has taken on a coincidental resonance at Courteenhall with happy couples now able to tie their own against the backdrop of Samuel Saxon’s comely creation. The house was among those featured in the The New Vitruvius Britannicus (1802, left), ‘plans and elevations of modern buildings by the most celebrated architects’.

(The demolished Buckminster Park was also included. Hard to believe today but Courteenhall faced the same post-war fate until wiser counsel prevailed.5)


see: British Imperial Calendar 1811

With such an elegant early calling card, to find the architect still keeping good company and apparently well in the game some twenty years on (r) is no great surprise; the mystifying scarcity of his work, however, most certainly is…

[Courteenhall Estate][G.II* listing]


see: Google Streetview

1. Summerson, J. The life and work of John Nash, 1980.
2. Suggett, R. John Nash: Architect in Wales, 1995.
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